What It Means to Be Confessional and Why It Is Important

We at Heritage Presbyterian Church regard Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) along with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms as excellent, though not inspired, expressions of the teaching of the Word of God. Because we acknowledge the Word of God written to be the supreme authority in all matters of faith, morals, and order, we adopt this historic document as our doctrinal standard. We find it to be an assistance in controversy, a confirmation in faith, and a means of edification in righteousness.

The Need For Doctrine

It is no revelation that doctrine has been vastly watered down over the past 100 years in American churches. Statements of faith have become less defined in order for churches and organizations to be more inclusive. For some institutions there may be some warrant for this, but for the church, doctrine must be well defined for the sake of unity and its health.

For the most part, the Church in America has become very unhealthy due to its dumbing-down and shallowness of doctrine, which simply means “the teachings” of our faith. Many people like to discount the need for doctrine today, but doctrine is the basis of the truth upon which our faith stands. Jesus clearly exhorts us in His commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them . . . teaching them . . .” (Matthew 28:19-20). The teaching of doctrine is the means where believers are preserved from error and apostasy and the means of strengthening our relationship with God.

Notice Peter’s exhortation at the end of his short epistle , “but grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” In understanding this verse, we must put it in context with what precedes it,

14 Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; 15 and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—16 as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. 17You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; 18but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen.
(2 Peter 3:14-18)

Peter is here commending the growth in the deep things of Scripture in order to protect us from error and falling away from the Lord. It is interesting to see that he admits that some things in Scripture are hard to understand. However, he is certainly not giving us license to dismiss those hard things, but is exhorting us to apply ourselves all the more diligently in order to understand even the hard things. That is why he concludes with the command to grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The words of Paul as he exhorted Timothy, a young pastor at Ephesus, in 2 Timothy 4:2-4, are noteworthy for the present day in which we are living,

2 Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.

Ministers must fulfill their divine calling by preaching the Word and teaching sound doctrine. Few pulpits today are faithfully heeding this command.

In his first epistle to young Timothy, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul calls the church the ground and pillar of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). The church is God’s institution that upholds the truth and maintains it’s integrity. Godly men coming out of the Protestant Reformation understood the importance of preserving the integrity of truth, especially against the backdrop of the abuses in the Roman Catholic Church from which the Reformation occurred. In order to define the truth that the Bible teaches, Protestants drew up Confessions of Faith which are still used to help believers know the doctrines and teachings of the Bible and aid them in discerning error.

It is imperative for us to understand what the Bible teaches and be able to accurately teach our children to discern between correct and false teaching. In our nation’s brief history, America stands as the leading country in producing the most cults in the history of the church. Most of these false religions have sprung out of orthodox Christianity and use the very words of the Bible to promote heresy. That is why the old saying, “No creed but the Bible,” while worthy of respect, is not sufficient to expose the difference between truth and error when the very words of Scripture are maligned and distorted. A confession is not equal with the Bible in authority, but is an expression of our faith as we understand what the Bible teaches.

The History of Reformed Protestant Confessions

In the early to mid 17th century, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists in England emerged from the Church of England and were persecuted by the official religion of the state. Between the years 1644 and 1648, an Assembly of English and Scottish Presbyterian divines, as they were then called, drew up the Westminster Confession of Faith in order to doctrinally unite themselves in resisting the governmental tyranny.

The Westminster Confession has been one of the most important works in the history of the church. Along with the articles of faith, the Westminster divines also made shorter and longer catechisms to accompany their confession. A catechism is a resource in question/answer format to help young people and adults alike to learn their doctrine and be able to give a “reason for the hope that lies within them” (1 Peter 3:15).

Today the Westminster is still the standard confession of faith for the Presbyterian segment of the Church. Shortly thereafter English Congregationalists and Baptists adopted virtually the same articles of faith as the Westminster in the Savoy Declaration of Faith (1658), and the London Baptist Confession of 1689, respectively.  These confessions express the same faith of the Reformation Church but differ in church polity and practice.

How We use the Westminster Confession of Faith

Presbyterians have used confessions since their beginning in order to state clearly what they believe. Likewise, our church has adopted The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) as that which most represents our beliefs. We affirm that it is the right of any congregation to adopt a corpus of beliefs according to their conscience and understanding of the Scriptures.

To be a confessional church means that a church adopts a standard confession, whose orthodoxy has been proven by the test of time and experiential use, which will be the governing body of doctrine used to build up believers in the faith, protect the body of doctrine from heresies, and provide unity among the church body in protecting against harmful schisms. Following are four uses of our practices in being a confessional church:

1. Upon admission of new members into the church the confession is a good introduction to the doctrine which will be taught, giving the new member assurances that we will remain orthodox in our convictions. We do not expect everyone joining our church to be prepared immediately to understand personally all that the confession states, but in a spirit of humility each must be willing to grow in these truths to greater understanding, not willfully speak against them, and submit themselves to body of doctrine and practice therein revealed. A copy of the confession will be given to every new member of the church for a ready reference on doctrine. Those considering membership may borrow a copy to look over before joining.

2. We do not require that the guest speakers we invite hold to the confession. There are many fine believers who are serving God faithfully, yet may not hold to the exact expression of our convictions. We open our arms to these faithful ministers of the Word, and may invite them, at times, to address our people. Though our confession will guide us in selecting those we choose for guest speaking, it will not preclude those who are in the most basic areas soundly orthodox, but differ on some specific point with the confession.

3. We do expect conformity to the confession for pastors, pastoral assistants, interns, home group leaders, and teachers, etc., those most associated with the pastoral duty of teaching the truth. This conformity does not imply that each person will have a thoroughly formulated understanding and acceptance of every aspect of the confession; it does mean, however, that they are willing not to knowingly teach contrary to the established doctrine of the church while working out these finer points. Certain doctrines are so clear and so necessary that a potential leader would have no reason to be in confusion over them e.g., the inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the nature of saving faith, the coming of the Lord, the sovereignty of God in electing, etc. However, more difficult points of doctrine may take even good students some time to work out e.g. sacramentology (i.e. the study of the sacraments), etc. Since teaching is a direct pastoral extension, it is up to the session (i.e. elder board) and/or presbytery to decide which points of theology, on a case by case basis, may remain suspended in a potential leader’s thinking. Pains should be taken, however, to remove the confusion and to come to a solid conviction.

4. If an elder, pastoral assistant, home group leader, intern, etc., comes to a conclusion contrary to the confession, he is required to come to the session for counsel about his or her beliefs. The elders will work with the concerns of the leader until there is a unity in doctrine. If unity among the pastors and the individual is unattainable, then the pastors and individual must fall back on the confession as a correct expression of truth until proven otherwise. The teacher will be asked to discontinue teaching until there is a better resolution. It is admissible that some teacher may completely apostatize and disbelieve many truths once held true. In that special case, church discipline is in order and all teaching responsibilities will be terminated. Thus the congregation can be assured and confident in the consistency of the teaching within the church, and our commitment to doctrinal integrity.